Nobel Prize Winner Dr David Baltimore wants to establish a new institution to use genetic engineering in the war against AIDS, delegates heard at the conference on the Social, Ethical, Legal, Educational, Bio-Medical and Bio-Technological Implications of the Human Genome Project, hosted by the African Genome Initiative, at Spier, near Stellenbosch this month.
He has called for the relaxation of requirements that vaccination procedures stimulate naturally available immunity and that scientists commit themselves to genetically designing an "immunity protein".
In a paper delivered on his behalf at the conference, he said attempts to set up an antibody vaccine to prevent AIDS infection had not yet been successful.
According to Baltimore, two main approaches to set up an antibody vaccine had been used to date, both of which attempted to boost the body's natural immunity. But both had so far failed because of the "notoriously mutable" nature of the HIV virus.
"Intriguingly, there was an apparent effectiveness in subgroups of black and Asian Americans but that the numbers were so small that it is highly unlikely that this is an indication of effectiveness".
"The third approach is to say that natural immunity is too limited for our needs; we need to augment it with modern-day genetic engineering".
Dr Baltimore believes that ideally a highly protective antibody can be developed that will block infection, be efficient against all HIV strains and mutations, and have no side-effects.
"Actually we don't care if it is a real antibody, it can be an antibody derivative that has all the right properties. Let me call it an 'immunity protein'".
He said that the immune system could be engineered to make the proposed protein through gene therapy. Experiments to date with mice had shown that lentivirus vectors or "lentivectors" had successfully carried genes into their systems and that these had lasted for several generations.
"We should be able to design a lentivector that can encode the immunity protein and use it to implant into immune cell precursors the ability to make the proposed protein. We would do this by mobilizing the bone marrow stem cells".
Dr Baltimore concedes that it will be prohibitively expensive and too technologically intensive for Third World countries to initiate. It would therefore have to be developed in the First World and packaged cheaply in order to be accessible to as many people as possible.
"It will not be truly successful unless we can solve the logistical problems that make it an expensive procedure and have it available to the whole world".
Dr Baltimore said he was in the process of trying to set up such a non-profit organization at Caltech that would develop the project using government and philanthropic funding.